If Osbourne Computer Corp. had a dollar for every time its founder has been characterized as "egotistical," "abrasive,' "stubborn," "opinionated," or "arrogant," it would be a debtless enterprise today. As it is, the company went into voluntary bankruptcy in September, hardly two years after it was founded. And Adam Osborne -- once the epitome of the successful entrepreneur -- has been taking his lumps ever since.
The truth, of course, is that Osborne has often lived up to his billings. Certainly his stubbornness in failing to recognize the importance of the IBM Personal Computer in the microcomputer market helped send his company into its financial tailspin. And, yet, we should not forget that he had some substantial accomplishments as well -- accomplishments that grew out of that same stubbornness and self-assuredness for which he is now brought to task.
Osborne was, after all, the first to recognize the market for a portable microcomputer, and the only one willing to venture off into what was then uncharted territory. Despite almost universal skepticism, he began making the little machines and selling them at a price that most observers considered impossibly low. He also took the unprecedented step of bundling microcomputer business software into the package. Within fewer than six quarters, his company was posting annual revenues of over $100 million, and employing more than 1,000 people at its plant in Hayward, Calif. -- this during a recessionary period when many another company was laying off help.
Whatever the reasons for his ultimate failure, Osborne proved himself to be one of the bolder -- and, in a broad sense, one of the more successful -- entrepreneurs in recent memory.
With that thought in mind, senior writer Robert Mamis journeyed to Hayward to interview Adam Osborne this past July (see Face to Face, page 21). It was Mamis's second encounter with the British-educated entrepreneur. The first had occurred a year earlier, in Osborne's salad days. "Despite his reputation, I had found him to be a man who was warm, receptive, sensitive," Mamis recalls of that first meeting. "He mulled ideas over seriously and was as introspective as the press made him egomaniacal.
"When I returned this year, Osborne's business was collapsing around him, and he clearly sensed his days might be numbered. He already had reduced his work force, and word was out that OCC owed money. The very strength that got him going -- that sense of being insuperable -- was catching up with him. Although what Osborne did would be an immense feat of entrepreneurship in any era, many of the pejoratives regarding this complicated man persist."
On the eve of his company's collapse, Osborne attempted to put his accomplishments into perspective. He talked candidly about himself, his life, and his attitudes toward business and his own achievements. If anything, he tended to downplay the significance of his contributions. On the decision to bundle software, for example, rather than grabbing credit, he noted, "Everyone says our packaging was a great innovation. To me, it was self-evident. IBM had been doing it for years -- until the justice department stopped them."
Perhaps sensing what lay ahead, he also talked about the ephemeral nature of entrepreneurial stardom, and seemed to be reaching for some meaning in the phenomenon. "We mythologize football stars, movie stars, and successful businessmen. What's the function of the myth? Everyone entering the job market is bathed in it, and, [as a result], we get so much more out of them that our society has benefited. They have worked beyond the outer limits of their capability."
The same, of course, might be said of Osborne himself. Untrained in financial matters, never before having managed more than 50 people or run a manufacturing operation, lacking even a degree in electrical engineering, Osborne nonetheless drove his company to heights well above what might otherwise have been expected. And in so doing, Osborne himself became a part of the myth.